Michelle Pfeiffer’s been acting for more than four decades — she made her showbiz debut in a 1978 episode of TV’s “Fantasy Island” — and yet when you think about leading ladies, she’s sometimes forgotten.
That’s odd, since Pfeiffer is the Hollywood equivalent of a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a full-on movie star who earned three Oscar nominations in four years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She was playing plum roles — the erratic, cocaine-addicted Elvira, in “Scarface” (1983); the luminous lounge-singer-in-a-tiny-red-dress, Susie Diamond, in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989); and the unconventional Countess Ellen Olenska, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” (1993). Along the way, there were memorable turns in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Married to the Mob” (both 1988), “Batman Returns” (1991), and “Hairspray” (2007).
Maybe Pfeiffer’s not top of mind because unlike, say, her “Scarface” costar Al Pacino, she isn’t famous for chewing scenery. She makes an impression without seeming to try. Pfeiffer’s insouciant on the screen. She’s also uncommonly lovely, which, alas, can obscure even serious acting chops.
Now, at an age when some actresses slow down — she turns 63 this month — or, due to a dearth of good roles, stop altogether, Pfeiffer is still at it. In 2017, she earned her first Emmy nomination, for her performance as Ruth Madoff, in HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies”; critics enjoyed her cruel supporting role in Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” (2017); and she’ll play Betty Ford in an upcoming Showtime series, “The First Lady.”
In the new movie, “French Exit,” Pfeiffer plays Frances, an old-world heiress who decamps to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) after learning that despite all the high ceilings and carved mahogany — you’ve never seen so many balustrades! — she’s broke. Frances is fierce, and Pfeiffer plays her appropriately — without, yet again, seeming to try too hard. When Sony offered an opportunity to do a Zoom call with the actress, we said yes.
Q. I didn’t know a “French Exit” is the same thing as an Irish goodbye. You strike me as someone who may have done that once or twice.
A. I didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing all this time. I’m a little shy and awkward, socially, and have some anxiety around that. So as soon as I arrive someplace, I’m kind of trying to figure out and calculate when I can leave.
A. I was relieved that I wasn’t the only person and that was actually a thing.
Q. In the case of the film, it’s kind of . . . final.
A. The ultimate French exit.
Q. I read this was a character you didn’t totally “understand.” What does that mean?
A. I, like the majority of people, have spent my life telling myself, “Don’t be rude. Be nice. Be polite.” And it’s always so refreshing, and liberating, to play a part like this, where you don’t have those sorts of constraints. All of us long to be a little bit more like that. I think, in Frances’s case, it’s a bit of a coping mechanism and, honestly, a bit of a way to keep people from getting too close. But there’s something compelling about this type of person. We all know them. Maybe not quite like Frances. So I guess there was my own resistance to just sort of go with that, but once you’re in it, it’s a lot of fun.
Q. You and Lucas Hedges, your characters, have a believable relationship. It isn’t . . .
Q. Yes, traditional.
A. We had about a week of rehearsals, but what I realized afterwards was that we didn’t really have that much time rehearsing together. We rehearsed a lot one-on-one with [director] Azazel [Jacobs]. But I didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time rehearsing with the other actors. So we discovered our relationship as we went along. It’s interesting, because Lucas and I have very different ways of preparing, but ultimately you end up in the same place.
Q. You’re Michelle Pfeiffer, though, so whatever way you want to do it, that’s the way it’s done, isn’t it?
A. I was going to say, it doesn’t matter who you are. Actors prepare how they prepare. You’re not going to change that.
A. As long as you end up in the same place, and you end up present for each other, you can prepare any goddamn way you want.
Q. The movie is lovely to look at. It’s got an old-world charm. So many bookshelves and railings. You shot in France?
A. I was only there for about a week. We primarily shot in Montreal and then we went to France to do exteriors.
Q. People like to use the word “comeback,” which is dumb because you’ve worked pretty consistently. Do you work as much as you want? Or would you work more?
A. I can’t imagine working more. I’ve been working quite a bit. In fact, I’d done “Maleficent” (2019) and as soon as I finished the press tour, I felt I was a little low on reserve to enter into “French Exit.” I was actually a little concerned because I realized how demanding this part was going to be. But when you’re working on something that’s this good and you’re surrounded by such an amazing ensemble of actors, and you love your director and you love the material, it just feeds you. Then you collapse after.
Q. The writing is good. It must beat making a superhero movie.
A. It’s a lot of work because it’s a lot of words. But, yes, when you’re working on great material with great actors, then it’s actually a joy.
Q. If I have a complaint, it’s that Imogen Poots isn’t on screen more.
A. She’s adorable. We were lucky to have her. We were blessed to have this cast.
Q. I want to ask you about playing Betty Ford. People talk about the Betty Ford Clinic, but she was hugely influential in talking about, and destigmatizing, breast cancer.
A. It’s true. Destigmatizing breast cancer, destigmatizing mental health, destigmatizing psychiatry. That was very taboo to talk about at the time. She was ahead of her time in supporting the ERA. And, obviously, founding the Betty Ford Clinic.
Q. She was kind of incredible.
A. Honestly, when I signed on, I knew what everybody knows. Everybody knows about the Betty Ford Clinic. I have a lot of friends who have been there, but I didn’t know the scope. And she did it all in such a humble way.
Q. The news that Michael Keaton is going to be Batman again has led to speculation about whether Michelle Pfeiffer will be putting on the catsuit again.
A. I didn’t know that! Michael’s going to play Batman again?! Oh, that’s so great! I didn’t know.
A. I’ve been living in a cave, I guess. I don’t watch television.
Q. What about the catsuit?
A. I think it’s time to turn the suit over to Zoë [Kravitz, who plays Catwoman in the upcoming “The Batman”].
Q. I wish I saw this movie in a theater. Are we ever going back to the movies?
A. For sure. Nothing replaces sitting in a movie theater and watching on a giant screen. There aren’t that many experiences people can have where you can check out for two hours. Watching movies has been so essential. It’s really gotten a lot of people through this year.
Q. But maybe there’ll be a business decision that streaming is satisfactory.
A. I don’t think so. Maybe it won’t go back to the way it was. Maybe it’ll just be a certain type of film that will be released on the big screen. I actually think we’re going to see a comeback of the drive-in.
Q. You know, a lot of people who used to go to drive-ins weren’t actually watching the movie.
A. True, and they may not now. But it’ll be a different experience.
Interview was edited and condensed.